Sermon preached by the Rev'd Fr. Donald L. Turner, Vicar, St. Peter's-at-the-Light Episcopal Church, Barnegat Light, New Jersey, February 17, 2019 (The Sixth Sunday After the Epiphany - Year C).
St. Luke 6: 17-26
In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.
In my first pastorate, old St. Paul’s German Evangelical Church built along the Erie Canal in 1833, just east of North Tonawanda, New York, and unaltered in the 132 years before I arrived, there is a high pulpit that put my head at least thirteen feet above anyone else’s who sat in the first row. I remember well the Sunday I preached on the text from The Revelation to St. John, chapter 22, verse 12: “Behold, I am coming soon; my reward is with me, to repay according to everyone’s work.”
I really wanted to emphasize Our Lord’s return and the subsequent judgment, so it was important that I declare the text at the appropriate moment with some force. So I got to that point and I said emphatically, “Behold, I am coming soon . . . “ and I couldn't think of the next words! I pulled myself together and exclaimed again, “Behold, I am coming soon” — again the rest of the text escaped me. For the third time I proceeded to shout out the text, when I found myself lunging forward over the pulpit and down into the lap of an elderly German woman! I wasn’t hurt, nor did she seem to be. I quickly got up, apologizing profusely. She said to me, in the most blessed spirit of Christian charity, “It’s not your fault, Pastor. I could have gotten out of the way. You warned me three times that you were coming!”
I’m sure you’ll have no problem believing that was an apocryphal story! Why tell it? Years ago there was a parishioner who told me that he liked my teaching sermons, the rest he could do without. Some time ago, and again last Thursday, our Mission Committee Clerk said to me that she liked teaching sermons. “It is a good way to learn the Bible,” she said. So my point in telling this absurd story is to have you never forget that what we call The Sermon on the Mount, in Luke’s Gospel is not preached on the mountain at all, but Jesus comes down the mountain to preach it, and so we have to call it The Sermon on the Plain.
Perhaps you are figuratively “scratching your head,” wondering how my ridiculous story is going to help you remember that! You’ll know, come the Sunday After All Saints in November when I preach on The Sermon on the Mount from Matthew’s Gospel. I have made a subtle connection between my aprocryphal story and your remembering that today’s lesson is called The Sermon on the Plain! I guarantee that you won't forget this!
Another obseration about how unrelated elements can help us remember something. In the second church I served there was a man whose surname was Mildren. I had been at the church three weeks and he realized that I still did not know his name, and he was offended. I mean, attendance was around 250 every Sunday, with a congregation of changing faces. How was I supposed to learn all the names in three weeks? In disgust with me, he said, “Oh, just call me Mr. Watermelon!” and he walked away. Is there a connection between “Mildren” and “watermelon”? Of course not, but I never forgot his name after that! That occasion was just a few months short of 50 years ago!
Now, not only have you learned that we can use two different titles for Jesus' sermon, you are going to learn that in each sermon there are what we call The Beatitudes. The word means “blessed” or “happy”. In Matthew’s Gospel there are nine of them, in Luke’s Gospel, four. And in Luke’s Gospel the four beatitudes are followed by four woes.
In both accounts of The Beatitudes we note that “disciples” is a noun that occurs frequently. I don't think I am wrong when I say that when we hear of the “disciples” we call to mind the twelve. A careful reading of both of the accounts of the Sermon — The Sermon on the Mount and The Sermon on the Plain — shows us that all of the followers of Jesus are called disciples. “Disciple” literally means “learner” or “student”. We are disciples of Jesus. What are we wanting to learn from him? Like the disciples around Jesus, we come to him to learn how to draw near to God, how to live a life that is much richer than merely existing. Jesus speaks words that have an eternal dimension about them. We find compelling his strange paradoxes, which we sense contain a germ of some eternal truth.
Blessed are you who are poor. There is nothing blessed in poverty. Persons who are poor may have a low sense of self worth because they are likely dependent upon family members or friends or social agencies for their sustenance. It is notable that St. Matthew’s treats The Beatitudes from a spiritual perspective. St. Luke speaks of them within the context of ethics and social justice. The absence of one’s self-sufficiency is not a blessing to be celebrated, and so what St. Luke perceives is that the poor are more likely to turn to God because they’ve known life to be so unfair, so unjust. Jesus says that because they trust in God they will be given the kingdom of God.
Blessed are you who are hungry. What I said about poverty hardly being a blessing, I have to say about hunger: there is no blessing in malnourishment or starvation. We know that, and so compassion moves the hearts of those who have food to make provision for those who do not. For those of us who enjoy an abundance of food there is this dire warning from Jesus: “Woe to you who are full now, for you will be hungry.” We should not dismiss Our Lord’s judgment upon our luxuries. The fortunes of life are fickle. Consider the wild and prosperous days before October, 1929. Somewhere on the streets of our cities today you will find a homeless CEO, who has lost his fortune and his family. Somewhere.
Blessed are you who weep. St. Luke may be referring to some form of oppression that causes despair and lamentation. Jesus says that though we may cry over the pain and sorrows in this life, a day is coming for the faithful when crying will be turned into laughter. As with many of the sayings of Jesus, we see here the reversal of fortunes. Lazarus, who lies at the gate of the rich man’s estate, being fed the refuse from the noble man's dinner table, will in the life to come feast sumptuously and drink plenty, while the rich man starves and begs for water to quench his thirst.
Blessed are you when people hate you, exclude you, revile you, and defame you. Jesus is thinking of the days long past when messengers of God, called “prophets,” tried to warn Israel of the destruction that would surely come upon them if they did not repent of their sins and turn back to God. The prophets were mocked and spurned. But they received a reward. They were esteemed by God. Jesus says that those who suffer for his sake will have their reward in the coming kingdom.
Jesus is coming again. I don’t have to shout that out! Whether in our lifetime, or at our dying, he is coming to meet us. We will be judged. And if we have remained faithful to him at his coming, we will receive the crown of eternal life.
In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.
Copies of Fr. Turner's sermons are always available each Sunday on the table in the rear of the Nave. He advises that you do not take a copy to follow him while he is preaching because he preaches from memory of the manuscript and often departs from the text, especially if he thinks of a good joke! Sermons are not lengthy. The Vicar had a Professor of Homiletics who told the class, "If you can't strike oil in ten minutes, quit boring!"